The coronavirus pandemic brought with it several challenges for the 2020 baseball season. A week before the virus shut down spring training, the Orioles made a decision that caused them to miss out on potential benefits.

On March 6, the Orioles returned their two Rule 5 draftees, right-handers Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker, to their original organizations, At the time, the Orioles thought having two non-optionable pitchers on their staff would make navigating the roster moves required in a 162-season difficult. Then, the virus struck, the season was shortened to 60 games and teams’ rosters expanded from 26 to 28.

The 2020 Rule 5 draft begins at noon Thursday, and the Orioles will enter it with the fifth overall pick, still seeking talent to add to their pitching stuff. They possibly could have already had more; the shortened season and expanded roster likely would’ve made it easier for Rucker and Bailey to stick with the team all year. Players selected must remain on the active roster all season or be offered back to their original clubs after clearing waivers.

In both of the Rule 5 drafts the Orioles have participated in under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, they’ve come away with two players. Only one of those four — infielder Richie Martin — remains with the organization, though a Rule 5 draftee of the previous front office regime, Anthony Santander, was this year’s Most Valuable Oriole. Elias said Tuesday that it’s possible the Orioles double-dip again this year, noting they have two open 40-man roster spots. The Orioles have picked at least one player in the Rule 5 draft since 2006.

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“We’re rebuilding, and I do believe it’s easier for a team in a rebuilding cycle generally to take a chance with the Rule 5 draft,” Elias said.

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Last year, the Orioles were responsible for two of the Rule 5 draft’s 11 picks, four of which remained with the team that acquired them throughout the season. Bailey was a former sixth-round pick for the Oakland Athletics who the Houston Astros traded for while Elias was the assistant general manager there. He had a 3.07 minor league ERA in 83 outings, 58 of them starts.

Bailey ended up making five relief appearances for Houston in 2020, allowing nine baserunners and two runs in 7⅓ innings for a 2.45 ERA. Rucker, though, was never added to the Chicago Cubs’ 40-man roster after the Orioles returned him, and he spent the season at their alternate site.

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By still not being on the 40-man roster, Rucker, 26, could be a candidate for the Orioles to select again. He spent 2019 pitching mostly in relief in the high minors after being primarily a starter before that, getting more than three outs in 27 of his 35 relief appearances.

The Orioles’ selections of Bailey and Rucker preceded the free-agent signings of starting rotation candidates Kohl Stewart, Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, moves that hampered the Rule 5 picks’ paths to roster spots. But by September, none of the three free agents were with the Orioles: Stewart had opted out of the season as a Type 1 diabetic, LeBlanc suffered a season-ending injury and Milone was traded to the Atlanta Braves. Those absences opened late-season rotation auditions for prospects Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann.

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In the bullpen, where both Rucker and Bailey also could’ve fit, the Orioles took steps forward as a unit despite losing veterans Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro to in-season trades. Had the Rule 5 duo remained and cleared their Rule 5 requirements in 2020, they potentially could’ve joined Isaac Mattson as young, optionable members of Baltimore’s 2021 bullpen.

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Instead, unless the Orioles select Rucker on Thursday, both will remain a part of other organizations. Elias has said several times that Orioles will spend this offseason hoping to add pitching depth, with middle infield solutions now also a necessity after last week’s trade of José Iglesias and nontender of Hanser Alberto.

Available players eligible for this year’s Rule 5 draft who fit those molds include Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Omar Estéves, a 22-year-old second baseman and shortstop who had a .784 OPS in Double-A in 2019; New York Yankees infielder Kyle Holder, a 26-year-old glove-first shortstop; Chicago Cubs left-hander Brendan Little, a 24-year-old former first-round pick who might benefit from a move to the bullpen; and Astros right-hander Jose Alberto Rivera, a 23-year-old who hasn’t pitched above Low-A but as a Houston farmhand has an obvious connection to Elias.

The Orioles haven’t lost a player in the Rule 5 draft since 2015 and have tried to keep that streak alive, protecting six prospects by adding them to the 40-man roster. Right-handers Cody Sedlock, Zach Pop and Brenan Hanifee are Baltimore’s top candidates to be selected by another organization.

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